And Then There Were None stands tall among Agatha Christie’s most popular mysteries. This is a little bit odd, given that the novel itself is a little bit odd in terms of what usually attracts readers to Christie. While there is a detective character, he’s not at all loveable, unlike Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, or some of the author’s other sleuths.
The story’s setting is a little bit odd, too. It’s no quaint village, where one might sip tea with Marple. It’s no exotic locale—say, afloat on the Nile or onboard the Orient Express—where one might irritate Poirot. Then again, the Devonshire coast is close to where Sherlock Holmes journeyed to put a leash on The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle’s equally famous mystery published about 40 years earlier. Devonshire’s barren landscapes and craggy seascapes certainly create a feeling of treacherous isolation, and Christie leans hard into this in ATTWN.
Wondering why this unusual Christie novel became one of her most loved, I did some research into how readers reacted when it first became available. That was 1939 in the United Kingdom and the year after in the United States. I was especially curious about how we Yanks responded to a novel that had particular resonance for Brits on the brink of another world war. (Remember that the U.S. kept a distance from the war until December, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.)
The earliest review I found is in a June, 1939, issue of a Nebraska newspaper called the Grand Island Daily Independent. Presumably, its critic had finagled an advance copy. The article is tiny—three sentences with one significant spoiler!—but it ends by describing the novel as “one of the best of its kind ever written.” That’s high praise for a piece with such a low number of words.
The rest of the reviews are from the first few months of 1940, and they echo that Cornhusker with surprising consistency. In February, Iowa’s Council Bluffs Nonpareil declared Christie’s work to be “non-stop reading from cover to cover.” The next week, Vermont’s Burlington Daily News said it is “a much better-than-average detective story with a solution that is bound to surprise and gratify even the most hardened reader.” A few days later, Missouri’s Salem Post and The Democrat-Bulletin dubbed it “the perfect mystery story.” Clearly, ATTWN didn’t gradually earn the reputation of a classic. It was born that way.
In March of 1940, California’s Oakland Tribune published one of the longest reviews I found. It compares Christie to other mystery writers such as Dashiell Hammett and then does well to summarize the plot without divulging any of its secrets. The critic concludes: “’And Then There Were None’ goes on the ‘must’ list for detective addicts.” Next, Tennessee’s Nashville Banner predicted that “those who read it will not find it necessary to dog-leaf any of the pages but will read through before putting it down.” Later that month, Iowa’s Democrat and Leader made one of the most negative comments I came across. The novel’s “gruesome story” is simultaneously “fascinating but not very pleasant to read.” I sense that this critic was referring to Christie’s shift from her usual cozy and lightly comedic mood to one as bleak and raw as, well, Devonshire itself.
Nonetheless, more glowing reviews appeared in the months to follow. Pennsylvania’s The Call said the novel “tops everything [Christie] has done—here is the perfect murder story, a classic of crime.” Tennessee’s Chattanooga Daily Times added that Christie had “done it again, using an incredible plot in an unbelievable manner, and turned out a thriller that delights to the last word.” Overwhelmingly, the earliest American reviewers of the novel recommended it and even raved about it.
Reviewing these reviews, I deduced that the novel’s success rose because of its uniqueness, not despite it. I now look forward to seeing how well that distinctiveness carries over to the stage. Town & Gown’s production of And Then There Were None runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1 and then from Oct. 5 to 8.